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Improving Dairy Cow Feed Efficiency Begins with….

Frequently dairy producers are being encouraged to implement ways and means to improve the efficiency with which their cows and herds convert their feed into milk. For herd feeding and management, some solutions already exist yet for accurate genetic indexing the answers are yet to be found. The Bullvine has written about feed efficiency in the past (read more: Should You Breed for Feed Efficiency?, A Guide to Understanding How to Breed For Feed Efficiency and Fertility  and Feed Efficiency: The Money Saver), however, let’s further consider both the facts and the challenges.

The Growing Power of Small Wins

In the past 25 years, the matter of feed efficiency has gone from giving cows a “least cost” balanced diet and accepting the resulting milk production to monitoring both feed intake and milk production to arrive at maximum net profit per day.  Why? This is in a major part because the cost of production now, 50-60% of which is feed costs, is much higher relative to farm gate milk price than 25 years ago. Yes, the margins on dairy farms, the world over, are much narrower and the cost of feed is therefore under scrutiny. So even a slight gain of $0.25 to $0.50 on Income Over Feed Costs (IOFC) per cow per day can make the difference between a farm staying in business or exiting the industry. With most other items in the cost of producing milk increasing every year, it leaves feed cost as the target for change.

The challenge of cost savings is not the only matter producers face when it comes to feed.  Consumers want access to certifiable information on how the cows were fed to make the milk. Organic. Were human edible feedstuffs used? What ingredients were added? The list is expanding. Where producers once ignored customers questions on feedstuffs, there will need to be accurate records of feeds and feeding methods.

Past Progress Not a Stop Sign

Before we continue, it must be noted that US dairy farmers have put in place many improvements over the past seventy-five years. Comparing 1944 to today, cows produce much more milk per year (443%). As well as modern milk production requires 23% of the feed, 35% of the water and 10% of the land to produce a gallon of milk than was required in 1944. All impressive numbers.

The reality is, that like in many businesses, dairy farming will need to continue to operate on tight margins, all the time with more monitoring and the need to a guaranteed product.

Establishing Milestones to Feed Efficiency Improvement

There are two aspect to monitor feed efficiency – the herd and the cow.

  • Herd Analysis Through Data Collection
    Working with their nutritionist, dairy farmers can now monitor and specifically manage their herds, strings and pens for feed costs by recording feed inputs and milk output. There are programs that also consider the effects of a feeding program on udder health, fertility, animal health and more. For pasture-based herds, it is only the concentrates feed that can be closely monitored. My experience in working with dairy herd improvement clubs, producers can increase their income over feed costs anywhere from $0.50 to $2.00 per cow per day by fine-tuning both the nutrition program and the management program. $150 to $600 more net per cow per year – that’s well worth the extra work and effort.
  • Animal Analysis Through Genetic Ranking
    On the genetic side of the improvement equation, it is not possible to currently sort or rank animals for feed efficiency. It is costly to capture individual cow feed intake. The Bullvine article, “The Genetics of Feed Efficiency in Dairy – Where are we at?”, published in May 2018, covers in detail the current global studies to establish genetic ranks for sires and the approximations for Feed Efficiency sire rankings that A.I. organizations are currently producing.  As well, most national total merit indexes, including NM$, TPI, LPI and ProS, include in their formulae a discounting factor for cow maintenance. This is an attempt to, for equal production performance, reward smaller to moderate-sized cows relative to larger cows. It is noteworthy that LPI considers Dairy Strength, an approximation of size, as a positive in its formula not a negative. Within, especially the Holstein breed, there is a   trend around the world to favouring moderate stature and medium-sized cows.
    Achieving national sire genetic rankings, for all proven sires based on 100+ daughters for Feed Efficiency, are years away due to the cost of data capture and the variation in data capture systems. At the present time, some breeding companies (A.I.) and an increasing number of precision dairy companies are extensively studying the capture of individual cow feed intakes and matching that with production performance and genomic information. They will be producing genomic indexes for feed efficiency. Within a few years, breeders can expect to see company genomic indexes for feed efficiency in the 55-70% reliability range.
    USDA (Beltsville) researchers have studied heifer and milking cow feed efficiency and found that on a genetic basis for equivalent performance $0.21/day can be saved in heifer feeding costs and $0.23/day can be saved in cow feeding costs. The number of animals in the study are limited but it does give hope to having genetic indexes for animals in their ability to convert feed to meat or milk. The USDA numbers are in the same range as feed cost savings published in literature explaining STgen’s EcoFeed® sire ratings. In time dairy managers will be able to choose between sires of equal genetic merit for production where one sires whose daughters cost $0.20 more or less in feed costs per day.

Start by Improving Selection Criteria  

At the herd, string and pen level dairy managers need to work with their nutritional staff or advisors to routinely record feed inputs and milk production. Then calculate the Income Over Feed Costs. Always keep in mind that the Income Over feed Costs number is not the total answer as animal health and fertility are very important for a dairy farm to be successful.

At the sire selection level, dairy managers should consider the feed efficiency values that are published by A.I. As mentioned above, many national total merit indexes already factor in the cost associated with cow maintenance. As yet, the reliabilities for feed efficiency genetic ratings are only in the 45-55% range but they are a good start. Expect within a few years to see genomic sire and heifer indexes for feed efficiency. Our best advice, at this time, is to use the published feed efficiency numbers for animals as a supplementary piece of information. Total merit, production, health and fertility genetic indexes should remain the primary sire selection criteria.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

Feed conversion efficiency is important now. It will be even more important in the future.  Dairymen need to record feed intake and using it for herd feeding and management purposes.  As sire genetic indexes for daughter feed efficiency become available to eliminate the use of sires that do not rank in the top 25% for feed efficiency.




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